This beautifully produced CD and booklet introduces us to what for most of
us will be a new name, George Frederick Boyle. He was born in
Australia but after studying with Busoni and touring the western
world he ended up in America. There he taught and played, meeting
the greats like Paderewski and Backhaus to whom he dedicated
several works. The opening work on the CD, the Ballade,
is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky whom I had thought the greatest
virtuoso of the twentieth century having heard what he did in
the re-arranging of Chopin’s Etudes.
This Ballade is an arresting piece, appearing somewhat
sectionalised on first acquaintance and almost like a fantasia.
Once heard a few times one finds that its themes recur and develop
imaginatively and in a fascinating way. Even so, as Timothy
Young’s notes stress, the piece is heard as “a unique
improvisation”. There are frequent changes of tempo and
textures “unique harmonies, dissonances and modulations”.
So it’s quite apparent that in George Boyle we have an
extraordinary musician - a superb pianist, technically and musically,
but also a composer who knows exactly what he is doing and how
to achieve it. Why, as a contemporary of Rachmaninov in an age
of the Romantic virtuoso, is he such a recondite figure?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Boyle only occasionally
seems to have visited Europe. Although his music is fascinating
it is difficult to pin down a definitive style. The Ballade
is emotionally searching and very chromatic but perhaps one
has heard it all before.
The Sonata is a massive work of three movements. It is
dedicated to the Australian virtuoso Ernest Hutcheson (d.1951)
and consists of a lengthy Moderato un poco maestoso,
followed by an Andante Pensieroso and finally an Allegro
ma non troppo. This is where pianist Young really comes
into his own with some powerful, yet also delicate and highly
sensitive playing. It is an epic work in the full-blooded late-romantic
style but showing some influences including Debussy - whose
‘Preludes’ Boyle had premiered in America - and
Liszt in its drama and harmony. Apparently Boyle was renown
as a great player of the extraordinary B minor Sonata. Boyle’s
is an insiders’ piece. By that I mean a pianist’s
sonata as it includes some effects that only a strong pianist
could have realised. The first movement lasts longer than the
other two put together, and at times it does ramble. It contains
all of the motifs and themes found elsewhere and is a cyclic
sonata. It’s worth getting to know the opening two subjects
of the sonata form 1st movement fairly thoroughly.
The “world-weary” second movement as, Young describes
it, is in a clear ternary form. This leads into a “dance-like
finale in B minor” (yes, that key again) which after a
few, contrasting dreamy sections, culminates in “an exciting
coda” which “brings the work to a convincing conclusion
with the Maestoso theme (of the first movement) “entirely
I couldn’t help but wonder how a composer of such astonishingly
difficult music as the above would handle music with such a
simple title as Five Piano Pieces and sections entitled
Summer, Valsette, Minuet. The fact that
these are dedicated to each of five talented pupils, one including
Muriel Sprague, means that they are of varying difficulty. These
are not the sorts of pieces you would find even for Grade VIII!
Whilst listening to the first, Summer I was gazing out
onto a rare (for this summer) azure blue sky above my garden
with not a breath of wind. I found this really impressionist
score completely apt and enticingly lovely. The Valsette
is charm itself, the Improvisation harmonically quite
probing and free. The Minuet is delightfully dreamy but
the final Songs of the Cascade, which is the most virtuosic,
is a water fountain of thousands of notes creating a wonderland
of rose-garden colours.
This piece and the CD as a whole have made me realise that Australians
are even worse than we British at keeping their ‘lights
under bushels’. It’s astonishing to think that for
almost all of us this music will be utterly unknown and that
these are world premiere recordings. The disc is glamorously
presented in its cardboard case on firm and glossy paper with
photographs of the composer and performer and two useful essays
as well as a list of all of the benefactors to the CD company!
The recording is superb and the performances miraculous, clear
and a credit to the composer and to all concerned with the project.